Notes on the Post-Bush Mideast

Should auld aquaintance be forgot…
A year from now, the Bush Administration will be emptying its desks into cardboard boxes and preparing to hand over to its successor. And, it’s a relatively safe bet that the menu of foreign policy crises and challenges it will leave in the in-trays of its successors will be largely unchanged from that facing the Bush Administration today. A combination of the traditional lame-duck effect of the final year of a presidency, and the decline in relative U.S. influence on the global stage — a product both of the calamitous strategic and tactical mistakes by the Bush Administration and of structural shifts in the global political economy that will limit the options available to his successor — suggest that even as he goes scurrying about the Middle East in search of a “legacy,” very little is going to change in the coming year. Indeed, the recurring theme in many of the crises Washington professes to be managing is the extent to which it is being ignored by both friend and foe.

  • On Iran:
  • While the Administration insists that the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program changes nothing, plainly it represents a neutering of the hawks by the military establishment, which as we’ve suggested all along, was going to be a lot more active this time around in preventing another episode of disastrous adventurism for which men and women in uniform would pay the price (on the American side). The fallacy of the neocon and Israeli hysteria about Bush having 12 months to stop a new holocaust, which we’ve long challenged on these pages, has been laid bare by the U.S. intelligence community. Absent some insanely provocative action by the Iranians, there is unlikely to be any military action against Iran in the coming year.

    Moreover, the finding also makes an escalation of sanctions an even more remote possibility — and there’s little reason to believe that Iran would be likely to reverse course in the coming year as a result of any sanctions the U.S. could impose alone, or via the United Nations. What the NIE makes clear is that the Iran’s nuclear program would give it the potential to build nuclear weapons — as would any full-cycle civilian nuclear energy program — but at the same time, concludes that Iran is not currently pursuing that option. (Bush has essentially been arguing all along that Iran can’t be allowed to master the technology of uranium enrichment because that would give it the means to build a bomb should it choose to do so. But the Iranians appear to have mastered that technology already.) The NIE also makes clear that Iran will make its decisions over whether or not to pursue the strategic nuclear option based on a rational calculation of its national interests.

    In fact, the U.S. intelligence community has essentially laid down a roadmap for the U.S. dealing directly with Iran, which essentially requires that the regime’s own security interests and regional aspirations be addressed and accommodated. In other words, a grand bargain with Iran, in which the U.S. relinquishes the goal of destroying the Islamic Republic’s regime in exchange for Iran satisfying U.S. and allied security concerns on issues ranging from nuclear power to terrorism and regional peace.

    But the Bush Administration, whose own Iran policy has always fallen between the stools of regime-change and diplomatic engagement, is unlikely to be in a position to grasp the opportunity. Much of its support base and its presidential candidates will demand sticking to the hawkish line, even as international support for meaningful action against Tehran all but evaporates. Even the advisability of a U.S. administration enfeebled by its travails in the Middle East and the by the short duration of its tenure trying to strike a grand bargain with an emboldened and confident Iran is open to question. And, of course, Iran could see a change in its presidency, too, as a result of elections to be held in the summer of 2009. Even now, signs are that the Iranians are being careful to avoid escalating any confrontation with the U.S. and have, according to the U.S. military, been more cooperative in Iraq.

    What the NIE report has done is removed the urgency from the equation, taking the wind out of the sails of those who had insisted that if he failed to act decisively, even militarily, before the end of his tenure, President Bush would leave his successor facing a nuclear-armed Iran. Instead, he’s more likely to leave his successor facing a version of the current dilemma — Iran enriching uranium in experimental quantities despite U.N. attempts to restrain it — but with a fresh set of policy options that the Bush Administration won’t allow itself: Principally, to negotiate directly with Iran on all issues of conflict.

  • On Iraq:
  • The Bush Administration’s troop surge has run its course, largely because the U.S. simply lacks the troop strength to maintain the current levels of commitment to a garrison mission in Iraq. The surge has brought a substantial reduction in sectarian violence in the capital and elsewhere, thus accompanying its primary tactical goal. But the strategic purpose of the surge was to create a security shield behind which Iraq’s political leaders could conclude the pact of national reconciliation that would set the country on a path to political stability.

    Iraq’s political leaders remain as deadlocked as ever, with the result that the security gains achieved by the surge could just as easily prove to be a time-out as a turnabout.

    President Bush has, of course, left no doubt that Iraq will be handed over to his successor, pretty much as is — rather than healed, the patient remains on life-support, in a situation that may be described, in medical parlance, as critical but stable.

    The fact that the U.S. has been unable to create the conditions for long-term stability in Iraq through the deployment of its own resources and those of its immediate allies (Britain is all but gone) means that Iraq’s future may well depend on the state of the U.S. relationship with each of its neighbors — Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — and the relationship between them. Managing that relationship may no longer be the exclusive responsibility of the U.S., either: Saudi Arabia is clearly making a concerted effort to repair its own relations with Iran, as are other Arab countries. The regional dynamic may be the most important front in setting the outcome in Iran over the next year. Don’t expect President Bush to be offering milestones and promising victory. Iraq in 2008 will be not unlike Iraq in 2007 — hanging in the balance.

  • On Israel and the Palestinians:
  • Despite the optimistic fanfare that surrounded the Annapolis peace conference, it would require an extraordinary leap of faith to believe that, as promised at that gathering, 2008 will be a breakthrough year towards Israeli-Palestinian peace. The more optimistic explanations for why this might be the case tended to focus on the apparent uptick in effort by the Bush Administration, and the idea that the domestic political weakness of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders who went to Annpolis makes them more reliant on a deal.

    But there has been no indication that the Bush Administration plans to change anything about its policy on the conflict other than the frequency with which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to the region. The Israelis have always left little doubt that they do not believe Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is capable of delivering a credible peace precisely because of his domestic political weakness; they have agreed to indulge Washington by going through the motions with him, knowing that they can live with the status quo. The Israelis also made clear they prefer an open-ended process with no timetable. They know that in a year’s time, they’ll still be there, but President Bush will be turning off the lights on his Administration. What’s the rush? Instead, the Israelis are likely to ignore Bush when his positions don’t suit them, be it on the question of expanding settlements in East Jerusalem or on negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas.

    On the Palestinian side, Abbas has thrown all his eggs into the basket of U.S. mediation, and has no option besides going along with whatever Washington is willing to do. But he knows, as do many U.S. allies in the Arab world, that the idea of a peace process constructed as if Hamas — the majority party in the democratically elected Palestinian legislature — did not exist, is simply fanciful. Yet, the current peace effort attempts to do just that. Even then, there is no sign that the Israelis are likely to give Abbas anything even close to what he needs — on issues ranging from prisoner releases and freedom of movement to settlements — in order to win the Palestinian political debate with Hamas. Nor is there much prospect of Abbas reasserting control over Gaza and halting the barrage of rockets that rain down from there into southern Israel. That’s up to Hamas, and the fact that Israeli leaders are starting to talk about talking to Hamas reflects their recognition of Abbas’s feebleness.

    And the Arab regimes are pressing Abbas to restore a unity government with Hamas, despite the fact that the Israelis deem this a deal-breaker — cynically, perhaps, given that they’re talking themselves about dealing with Hamas, but the Israelis have never been short of cynicism.

    Absent a U.S. Administration willing to change its own course in respect of talking to Hamas and willing, ultimately, to prescribe the terms of a fair solution to both sides, 2008 is likely to be simply a holding pattern until the next occupants of the White House have settled in.

  • On Syria and Lebanon:
  • Much is revealed about the state of U.S. influence in the Middle East by the fact that the Bush Administration felt compelled to invite Syria to its Annapolis peace conference despite the fact that Damascus remains allied with Iran, plays host to the headquarters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, continues to exert considerable influence in neighboring Lebanon despite the best efforts of the U.S. to end that influence, and even [EM] according to Washington’s own claims [EM] appears to be dabbling in nukes. The regime of President Bashar Assad has, quite simply, weathered the storm of the Bush Administration’s drive to remake the Middle East, and its centrality to the prospects for stabilizing both Iraq and Lebanon [EM] and the desire of pro-Western Arab regimes to detach it from Iran [EM] have forced Washington to abandon its efforts to isolate Syria.

    Syria’s demand that Israel return of the Golan Heights, which it captured in 1967, is now an integral part of the dialogue between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And, despite Washington’s best efforts to defeat the pro-Syria opposition alliance of Hizballah and the Christian followers of General Michel Aoun in Lebanon, the U.S.-backed government (and its supporters elsewhere in the Arab world) appear to have accepted the need for a compromise. Essentially, on the regional power-play scoreboard, Washington and its allies fought Iran, Syria and their allies to a tie in Lebanon.

    The Bush Administration is unlikely to engage with Syria directly, preferring to leave that to its Arab allies and, possibly, also Israel. But absent any U.S.-brokered deal on the Golan, movement on all these fronts is likely to be slow. Again, 2008 will, in the best case scenario, simply retain the holding pattern of the current stalemate, pending a new grand bargain made possible by political changes elsewhere (most notably in the U.S. and Iran).

  • On Pakistan and Afghanistan
  • Not part of the Middle East, of course, but nonetheless germane to its prospects. And six years after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a bust for the U.S. and its allies. Indeed, today it looks not unlike Soviet-era Afghanistan in the early ’80s, with the Taliban operating freely in around 60% of the country. Pakistan’s military regime continues to pursue policies at odds with U.S. desires (in Afghanistan and at home) while remaining the acknowledged “lesser evil” in Washington’s eyes. So what Bush says and what Musharraf does are quite different, but Bush has no good alternative to Musharraf. Anyone who was paying close attention after 9/11 will remember that the Pakistani leader’s position was to try and get the Taliban to cough up Osama bin Laden, in order to remain in power — which is where you usually want your proxy to be in a country you deem your strategic back yard. And there’s a growing belief even in NATO ranks that stability in Afghanistan may require a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Musharraf may, improbable as it may seem, actually get a version of what he wanted.

  • The Demise of Pax Americana
  • So, Bush has accelerated the decline of U.S. influence in the region through a series of disastrous blunders, and that decline is unlikely to be significantly reversed by any successor Administration in Washington — the decline of U.S. global influence is related not only to tactical errors by Bush; it is also a symptom of structural shifts in the global political economy. In the U.S., then, the question is whether it can elect a government that can adopt policies appropriate for a declining superpower (as opposed to Bush’s giddy adventurism which is based on a fantasy about U.S. capabilities — he still says things like “I’ve run out of patience with the Assad regime…” Oh really? And what does that mean? That like Kim Jong-il who Bush famously said he “loathed,” Assad will sooner or later also get a polite letter pleading for cooperation. What’s that? Oh, right, he already has; it was an invitation to Bush’s Annapolis conference…)

    But a second set of challenges arises in every part of the Middle East where those in power have premised their strategies and positions on the assumption of U.S. primacy — if Pax Americana in the Middle East is indeed on the wane, what does that mean for the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis, the Syrians and Iran and the Gulf States?

    Stay tuned.

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    80 Responses to Notes on the Post-Bush Mideast

    1. Mike says:


      Nothing would please me more, than seeing you being right about the situation. You live in hope, and that is fine.

      Me, I look at things as they are, rather than the way I would like them to be. I neither live in hope, nor do I live in Israel. But I also lack completely that sense of moral outrage about Zionism that drives the critics of Israel, and at the same time share none of the self-righteous indignation that drives Jewish and pro-Israel critics of Palestinian Arabs. Needless to say however, that nothing would make me happier than finding out that I was quite wrong in my assessment of the situation.

      Time will tell Shlomo, and I truly hope that it will be me and not you that Old Chronos will prove wrong.


    2. Y. Ben-David says:

      Murphy, I see you , like so many for thousands of years have done, are writing us Jews off. Obviously, you don’t know anything about us except for reading what Tony writes, which is not representative of the thinking of the Jewish people.
      As I said above, Israel is pulling ahead of the Arabs, Israel is attracting highly educated olim (immigrants) and continually building up its intellectual, economic and military infrastructure. I see most of the people in this forum compare Israel to the white settlers of Africa who in the end were forced out and much of what they built (outside of South Africa, for the time being) was destroyed.
      We would be glad to share our knowledge with our Arab neighbors, but they don’t want to hear about it at this time (the future may be something else).
      Jews have had an ongoing presence in the country for 4000 years, far longer than the Arabs, and the conntection of Jews who were in exile was unbroken. Thus, your predictions are nonsensicle.

    3. Matthew says:

      Mike: I was being elliptical. You apparently didn’t get it.
      What you describe is not the Arab condition; you describe the Israeli dilemma: The more violent and oppressive the Zionist Machine, the more evil its victims need to be.

      YBD: The Canaanites actually lived in the Promised Land before the Jews, hence your claim that “Jews have had an ongoing presence in the country for 4000 years, far longer than the Arabs, and the conntection of Jews who were in exile was unbroken”–is actually untrue.

      You also seem to forget that Ismael was the son of Abraham and is the ancestor of the Arabs. He was born before Jacob. Oops.

    4. Mike says:


      You say:

      You apparently didn’t get it. What you describe is not the Arab condition; you describe the Israeli dilemma: The more violent and oppressive the Zionist Machine, the more evil its victims need to be.

      I say:

      So, accoding to your lights, the violent and oppressive Zionist Machine must be violently oppressing Arabs everywhere, from Algeria to Sudan, from Saudi Arabia to Somalia, from Lybia to Kuwait.

      This must be so, because there appear to be no differences whatsoever between the brutal, violent and opppressive traditions, customs and social psychology common to these “nations” and those of the clans and tribes that make up the Palestinian “nation”.

      I congratulate you on your logic, Matthew. :-))))

    5. Mike says:

      Y. Ben-David

      I don’t think anybody is writing the jews off, and certainly not the American, Australian or European Jews, here or anywhere else. Widespread intemarriage and disappearence through assimilation is another matter, but that is the diaspora Jewry’s own making.

      What is being questioned here is the future of Israel as a viable Jewish state, in a situation where the propaganda war for legitimacy is being lost, the demographic indicators are not favourable, American public opinion is likely to turn against Israel as it already has in Europe, so that sooner or later a future administrations would cave in to pressure to force Israel into the status of an international pariah, as happened in the case of South Africa in the nineteen seventies and eighties.

      In a situation where America abandons Israel as a strategic liability, Israel’s achievements and claims would count for very little, and Israel’s strength would ebb away very, very quickly.

      This is the nub of the problem, the rest is rhetoric and shadow boxing.

    6. Mike says:

      Y. Ben-David

      Sorry, I just saw that the previous post has slipped through with a bunch of typos. So here we go again.

      I don’t think anybody is writing the Jews off in these columns or anywhere else for that matter, and certainly not the American, Australian or European Jews. Widespread intemarriage and disappearence through assimilation is another matter, but that is of course diaspora Jewry’s own making.

      What is being questioned here is the future of Israel as a viable Jewish state, in a situation where the worldwide propaganda war for legitimacy is being lost and the demographic indicators show the rapid emergence of a decisive Arab majority in the land of Israel.

      But what brings Israel’s future as a Jewish state iinto question above all is the likelihood that American public opinion would sooner or later turn against Israel, just as European public opinion did, from the nineteen seventies on. And crucially, the fact that an important and growing segment of the American foreign policy and defence elite is increasingly coming to regard Israel as a strategic liability. And Israel’s miserable performance in the 2006 Lebanese war did little to dispel this perception..

      The bottom line is that it is just about inevitable that sooner or later a future administration would finally cave in to pressure and strategically abandon Israel, thereby forcing it into the status of an international pariah, as successive American administrations did in the case of South Africa, in the ninetween seventies and eighties.

      In a situation where America came to perceive Israel as a strategic liability and abandoned Israel to its fate, none of Israel’s many and notable internal achievements and claims to legitimacy would count for anything much, and Israel’s strength would ebb away very, very quickly.

      This is the nub of the problem, the rest is rhetoric and shadow boxing.

    7. Y. Ben-David says:

      The Arabs are not decendents of the Canaanites…they don’t speak the same language, do not have the same culture and do not have the same religion. The Canaanites were expelled by the Assyrians. There has been a constant influx and outflow of people from the area for thousands of years. Only the Jews have a constant religious, cultural and national connecton with the country.
      Ishmael did not settle in the country. He lived in Arabia. That is the Arab country and it is theirs and only theirs. The Jews, for example, would have no claim to it.

    8. Mike says:

      Y. Ben-David

      Religious myths are an irrelevance to all except those who believe in them. So let’s keep to the facts.

      A Jewish state was proposed by the Zionist founding fathers as a solution to antisemitic persecution by European Christians, not because the God of Abraham promised it to the Jews. In fact, none of the founding fathers believed in any of the Old Testament myths.

      And the Jewish state was established by the UN vote against the most violent objections of the native Arab population not because it was promised to the Jews by the God of Abraham, but as a refuge and as a massive act of compensation for the Holocaust.

      And thereby a terrible and unforgivable injustice has been committed against the native Arabs, who had nothing to do with either antisemitic persecutions in Europe or the Holocaust.

      And whether or not the Arabs are descendants of Abraham and the Palestinian Arabs are descendants of Canaanites or Jebusites has nothing much to do with the price of rice or anything else for that matter, except in the minds of those capable of believing in and purveying such childish fairy tales with a straight face.

    9. Matthew says:

      Are you the same “Mike” who posted earlier?

      You know how we can cut through all the duplicity once and for all. We need a new, just UN resolution on Final Status in I-P that will set borders, resolve refugees, et.c.

      Then we will see who rejects it…..and the side who rejects will be known as the obstacle to peace. Of course, outside of the USA, no one is going to read the Book of Genesis before attending the UN vote.

      As an aside, considering Israel’s technological sophistication, aren’t you a little curious that no one has tried to map the floor of the Red Sea to find the remnants of all those Egyptian chariots, or find any archeological evidence that 2 million Jews left Egypt at the time of Ramses II? Hard to imagine that that many people wouldn’t have left mounds of evidence….if they actually left en mass, that is.

    10. Mike says:

      Yes, the same old Mike.

      There is nothing new in your idea about a new UN resolutions. The UN has been voting hostile resolutions against Israel with tedious regularity ever since the third world became the majority in the General Assembly, and frequent resolutions against Israel in the Security Council have only been stopped by US veto. In this regard, Israel and the US form a minority of two in the UN. But it is not only Israel that uses a single favourable UN resolution as justification whilst conveniently ignoring a multiitude of hostile UN resolutions when they do not suit her purposes. The fact of the matter is that the UN is generally a toothless talk shop, a forum for third worlders to vent some hot air, where things only get serious when the Security Council decides to throw the book at some party with chapter 7 sanctions. But no chapter 7 sanctions resolution can ever get up unless all permanent members of the Security Council vote for it, or at least abstain from voting.

      And no, I am not a bit curious about Egyptian chariots in Red Sea mud or about archeological “evidence’ or “lack of evidence” about any other part of the Jewish foundation myth, just as I am not the least curious about archeological “evidence’ or “lack of evidence” about any part of the foundation myths of any other ethnic group around the world, whether it be the ancient Greeks, the Norse or the Aztecs.

    11. Mike says:

      I failed to respond to your point about the Red Sea, so here we go.

      Yes, I am sure that if they were able to access the Red Sea, some or another nutcase in Israel or America would indeed be happy to fund an “archeological” exercise to map the floor of the Red Sea and look for chariots in the mud – just as there are some American nutcases actually searching for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat.

      But even if heaps of “archeological evidence” was found in the Red Sea mud of a whole drowned Egyptian army – well, whooppie doo, so what exactly would that prove?

      Gimme a break. :-)))

    12. Y. Ben-David says:

      The Balfour Declaration and League of Nations Mandate of 1922 recognizing Jewish national rights in Eretz Israel (“Palestine”) have nothing to do with the Holocaust, because they were recognized before it ever happened, and the Holocaust does not give the Jews any rights to any part of Eretz Israel. While you are correct that most of the founding fathers of modern political Zionism were not interested in Jewish tradition, they realized that without the ancient Biblical/religious/national claim, they had no right to demand any part of Eretz Israel. When Ben-Gurion, a stone atheist, appeared before the Peel Commission in 1937 and demanded a Jewish state, they asked him on what grounds he was doing this. He held up a Bible.
      Herzl wanted to set up a Jewish state in Kenya (the so-called Uganda plan). The Zionist movement rejected it on the grounds I explained. You may think religious/historical arguments don’t mean anything today, others do. Go ask HAMAS, go ask Ahmedinejad, go ask the Saudis, etc.

    13. Mike says:

      Hmmm. The Balfour declaration indeed. :-)))

      I presume the Brits and after them the League of Nations had first conducted a thorough plebiscite among the native Arab population to ascertain that a decisive majority gave their assent to the proposal before they so generously handed over the land of their birth to a handful of European Jews. Because let’s remember that at the time, the vast majority of the Jewish people were dead against Zionism, like ninety odd percent.

      And in any case it didn’t take much more than a couple of years before the Brits realised the enormous blunder they made with the Balfour Declaration and were trying to backpedal and wriggle out of the whole thing as fast as they could. But that of course is an inconvenient truth best left unmentioned. On the other hand, the Palestinian Arabs have as much right to quote this fact, as the Zionist Jews to quoting the Balfour Declaration. So we have the usual stalemate.

      As far as Ben-Gurion’s holding up the Bible before the Peel Commission – evidence, by the way of major British backtracking on the Balfour Declaration – well, this is exactly what I would have done in his place to make a (hopefully) effective propaganda point, given the cultural and religious inclinations and predilections of that commission.

      As far as the religiously based land claims of the Arabs are concerned, they are no less valid than the religiously based land claims of Jews. All a matter of belief that “my” God gave it to me, not to you – a notion so childish and inane as to be laughed out of court this day and age.

      The only pity is that us Jews, who should have known better, a lot better, got involved in such colossal inanities. Well, I suppose it is too late to do anything about it, so we’d better just get on with it, as long as we are able – or allowed to continue to do so.

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